LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) and ABSC Executive Director Dr. J.D. “Sonny” Tucker have filed an Answer to the December 2019 lawsuit. The Answer, an official court document that responds to the claims of the plaintiff, Riley Fields, specifically denies all of the allegations in the lawsuit. The plaintiff has amended the Complaint twice and added the ABSC’s insurance carrier as a defendant as well. The ABSC and Dr. Tucker also filed a formal Motion to Dismiss the claims against them.
Both the ABSC and Dr. Tucker specifically deny all of the claims made by the plaintiff. The most significant claim in the lawsuit alleges that plaintiff Fields was abused by another defendant, Teddy Hill, while Hill was pastor of Millcreek Baptist Church. Plaintiff Fields incorrectly claims that the ABSC was in control of the church and the pastor and therefore should have known about and prevented the alleged abuse. In essence, the plaintiff claims that the ABSC is somehow liable for Hill’s alleged actions while pastor of Millcreek simply because the church is affiliated with the ABSC. Plaintiff also makes these same claims of control and duty against Millcreek Baptist Church and Diamond Lakes Association.
The ABSC denies ever exercising any control over Millcreek or any other Arkansas Baptist church. In fact, the ABSC is prohibited by both The Baptist Faith & Message and the ABSC’s governing documents from ever interfering with the operations and/or ministry of any autonomous ABSC church.
Moreover, the Garland County Sheriff’s Department, Garland County Prosecuting Attorney, Hot Springs Village Police Department, and the Arkansas State Police Department have all stated there has been no conviction, no charges have ever been filed, and there are currently no plans to begin an investigation of Mr. Hill or anyone else in this matter.
The Answer also specifically denies an allegation that Dr. Tucker and the ABSC were informed by Hill’s ex-wife, Ms. Carolyn Latham, that Hill was abusing Fields. This alleged notification is claimed to have been given at most 4 months prior to plaintiff Fields turning 18. The lawsuit claims the ABSC and Dr. Tucker are somehow liable for Hill’s alleged abuse of Fields because neither Dr. Tucker nor any other ABSC employee reported the alleged abuse to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline. The plaintiff does not claim that he ever told anyone, including Dr. Tucker of his alleged abuse. Instead, the sole basis for this claim is the allegation by Hill’s ex-wife Ms. Latham.
The ABSC and Dr. Tucker state in their Answer that a family member of Ms. Latham insisted that Dr. Tucker meet with Ms. Latham due to extreme stress in her life. Dr. Tucker, and later another member of the ABSC staff, met with Ms. Latham to offer her free counseling services provided to pastors and their families. These services were offered to her despite the fact she was no longer married to pastor Hill. During these meetings, the Answer states that Ms. Latham demanded that Dr. Tucker fire her ex-husband because he was “untrustworthy” and a “bad and mean” person. Because Ms. Latham deemed her ex-husband untrustworthy, she stated she had him investigated for suspected child abuse, but investigators found no evidence of any child abuse. She was given contact information by the ABSC for the Child Abuse Hotline and was offered free legal counsel should any information ever surface regarding suspected child abuse. The family member who originally contacted Dr. Tucker was also given the same contact information and the offer of free legal counsel should any information surface regarding any suspected child abuse. This family member later contacted Dr. Tucker and said that she had indeed called the Child Abuse Hotline but indicated she did not have enough information to warrant any action by Child Protective Services. No further details or information was shared with Dr. Tucker.
The Answer states that no information was ever given by Ms. Latham or anyone else to Dr. Tucker or any member of the ABSC staff regarding any specific allegations of abuse. Instead, the Answer makes it clear that she repeatedly complained about her ex-husband and demanded his termination. Dr. Tucker commented on the lawsuit, stating “it is very disappointing and surprising for me personally and the state convention to be named in this lawsuit after trying to minister to Ms. Latham and her family. It is unfortunate to be caught in her apparent anger and on-going dispute with her ex-husband in this manner. In the midst of this difficult situation, it is our sincere hope that no one, including Mr. Fields, has actually been abused.”
Arkansas law states that a minister must make a mandatory report to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline when he or she “has reasonable cause to suspect” that either abuse or neglect of a minor has occurred. Dr. Tucker and the ABSC state they were completely unaware of any relationship between Hill and any minor, including plaintiff Fields. Moreover, the ABSC and Dr. Tucker deny receiving any information from Hill’s ex-wife or anyone else that would create any reasonable cause to suspect abuse by Hill. Dr. Tucker states that it has been and remains the policy of the ABSC for all of its staff to report any time there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect as required by Arkansas law.
Dr. Tucker and the ABSC have been strong proponents of both child protection policies in churches and the mandatory reporting responsibility for pastors. Under Dr. Tucker’s leadership, the ABSC has been conducting training for ABSC churches for five years. The ABSC has provided statewide training events in partnership with MinistrySafe, an organization founded by attorneys Gregory Love and Kimberly Norris that equips churches to create safe ministry environments for children. Free access to all of MinistrySafe’s training tools, policies and procedures, and services is provided by the ABSC to any ABSC church that cannot afford the nominal fees.
Regional training events and individual church consultations are also conducted by the ABSC staff throughout the year. Additionally, the ABSC provides a free legal consultation to Arkansas Baptist churches from Arkansas attorneys any time a question arises in this area. This helps strengthen the decision-making process for every church for handling any potential abuse and to be informed on the obligations of mandatory reporting.
For more information, visit absc.org or call 501-376-4791, ext. 5103.